Director Oren Moverman’s feature-length debut is a little like The Hurt Locker in the way it uncomfortably probes a little-known military organelle. But this Iraq War film trades the land-mine-riddled desert for the more stealthily treacherous suburbs, as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returns from combat only to be shanghai’d into the Army’s Casualty Notification service, whose operatives do the gut-wrenching job of delivering death notices to soldiers’ next of kin.
Will’s bristly mentor, Tony (Woody Harrelson), advises him to “stick to the script.” And you suspect that The Messenger itself will follow formula when fate decrees that Will fall for war widow Olivia (Samantha Morton). Yet something far more complicated blossoms.
The movie may start out clunky, but as Will and Tony wander from house to house, surfing “a fucking ocean of grief,” their icy carapaces melt, old wounds reopen, and things get interesting.